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Monday, October 8, 2012

Monday Metacognition #4

8:34 AM Posted by Tiffany Taft ,
This week:  Catastrophizing

This week's thinking trap is one of my favorites - Catastrophizing.  By looking at it you can probably guess what it is by its root word, catastrophe.  To catastrophize is to expect the worst case scenario to be the only possible outcome to a situation, or what I like to call "blowing-things-out-of-proportion-itis."  Catastrophizing usually takes place with another trap we'll cover next week, probability overestimation.  Together, these traps make for some pretty tense times.

Like all thinking traps, we all experience catastrophizing from time to time.  If you tend to be a "glass half empty" type of thinker, it may happen to you more often.  But catastrophic thinking can happen to even the most optimistic person.  Let's go back to our friend Shannon for an example.

Shannon has been feeling pretty well the past year or so, but her gastroenterologist decides that she would like to do a colonoscopy to check Shannon's colon for any problems and make sure no dysplasia, or pre-cancerous cells, are present.  Shannon has been through this many times in the past so she's not really worried about the procedure.  A few days later she gets a phone call from her doctor saying that she found some polyps and had them removed to be tested for signs of cancer.  One of them did come back with some dysplasia and she assures Shannon that by removing the polyp any chances of it progressing to colon cancer were removed.  However, because of this, Shannon should have a colonoscopy again in 6 months to make sure nothing has changed. 

Shannon goes into catastrophizing mode with the following thoughts:

"I'm sure I'm going to get colon cancer."
"What if she didn't get it all and it spreads not just in my colon but to my other organs?"
"What if when I have my scope in 6 months there are more polyps and because I waited so long they've turned into cancer?"

All 3 of these thoughts are predicting the worst case scenario in Shannon's mind - developing colon cancer.  Is colon cancer a real risk for her?  Absolutely.  But by assuming that this is her destiny, and that her doctor isn't going to do everything she can to keep it from happening, Shannon is setting herself up for a lot of worry and stress.  Catastrophic thinking can be a real drain on our ability to problem solve and focus on what actions we need to take to change a negative situation we find ourselves in.  Some people can become almost paralyzed by the anxiety catastrophizing can cause.

Are there situations in your life where you're predicting the worst case scenario?  How accurate do you think you are?  What are the alternatives and what can you do to make sure the "catastrophe" doesn't occur?

Next week:  Probability Overestimation